Your Church and Mission: What, How, Why (1)

9 March 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

Revised text of a presentation originally prepared for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in February 2007.

First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak on a subject that continues to be close to my heart.  Though I’ve been out of the missionary ranks for some time, I’m still very interested in outreach and mission.  So, when I heard what’s been happening here in Abbotsford over the last while, I was thankful.  First off, you have a church that’s interested in “Mission on the Home Front.”  The November 23 letter from Council to the congregation outlines some different options.  Then, as if that weren’t enough, an option is also being explored for overseas mission work.  Wow.  We can praise God for what’s happening here.  May he bless all these discussions so that they result in action!

What I want to do in my time with you this evening is to go over a number of important issues with respect to mission and outreach.  The idea is not necessarily for me to give you all the answers, but to at least get you thinking.  First, we’ll look at what mission is.  Then, closely related to that, we’ll consider the role of the local congregation in mission.  Third, we’ll briefly consider the question of how.  Finally, we want to look at the why, the motivation for mission.

The Definition of Mission

When we talk about mission it’s important that we’re all on the same page as to what exactly mission is.  I believe this is a good scriptural definition:

Mission is the official sending of the church to go and make disciples by preaching and witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ in all nations through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can see that it’s scriptural by going back to some of the key passages, particularly to those passages where the Lord Jesus was sending out his disciples into the world after his resurrection.  Let’s briefly survey some of those passages.

Matthew 28:18-20 provides the most well-known version of what is often called the Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In this passage, the Lord Jesus says very clearly that he wants to see the apostles going out and making obedient followers (disciples) in all the nations.  Now it should be noted that “nations” does not refer in the first place to social-political states.  The word in Greek refers to ethnicity rather than to political realities.  We should be able to see this clearly in Canada where our country is made up of various ethnicities and even ethnic groups that refer to themselves as “nations.”  There is much more that can be said about Matthew 28, but we should move along to the next passage.

In Luke 24:46-49, Luke records the Great Commission in this way:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

This passage is unusual in that the only direct command appears in verse 49, “stay in the city.”  The Lord Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the promise of the Father comes upon them – a reference to Pentecost.  In this passage, the Holy Spirit is connected with the Great Commission.  The disciples are sent out through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Verse 49 is basically telling the apostles, “Wait now and go later in the power of the Spirit.”

And when they do go, what are they to do?  Verses 46 and 47 give the answer.  In verse 46, the Lord Jesus speaks of what was written in the Old Testament about the necessity of the Christ suffering and then rising from the dead on the third day.  In verse 47, he goes further and says that Scripture (again the Old Testament) had prophesied that repentance and the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations in his Name, starting with the city of Jerusalem, but eventually this would reach out to all the nations – which, like in Matthew, are to be understood as ethnicities.  The Saviour’s words here lay out a picture of a divine-human effort in a limited sense.  The divine Word prophesied that it would be accomplished and ultimately, under God’s sovereign power, so it will be.  At the same time, the prophecy concerning the nations also lays a burden upon the hearts of the apostles, not merely to be witnesses in some passive, uninvolved sense, but to be active participants.  Verse 48 indicates that not only have the disciples been witnesses in the past, they are going to be witnesses in the future as well.

This will involve preaching.  What we have here is the preaching of the Word connected with a special office, the word of a herald bringing a message from a higher up.  That official character is underlined in this passage with the addition of those three words, “in his Name.”  So, from Luke’s gospel we can conclude that Christ, in fulfillment of the Old Testament, sent out his apostles in the power of the Spirit to witness to his suffering and resurrection and to preach officially repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.

That brings us to another form of the Great Commission.  This one also comes down to us from the hand of Luke, but this time in the book of Acts.  Acts 1:8 reads:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The key idea here is that the apostles will receive power from the Holy Spirit – notice again the accent on the work of the Spirit.  As a result of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the apostles are to be witnesses for the Lord Jesus, starting in their immediate vicinity and working outward.  As in Luke 24, the disciples are not so much sent out here as commissioned with a task.  To be sure, there is a geographic locale attached which implies both a sending out and a going.  However, the emphasis here is not on the sending and going.  Rather, it is on the fact that Christ commissions his apostles to be witnesses.  In the New Testament, a witness gives sound testimony to the truth of something and this sound testimony could stand up under legal scrutiny in a court of law.  Witnesses speak about what they have seen and heard.  So, the apostles were commissioned in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring a sober word of truth about Jesus Christ, a sober word that could convince a doubtful world that he is truly the Saviour.

If we go through the book of Acts, this is exactly the picture we see of the early Christian church.  The church goes out from Jerusalem into the whole world and witnesses for Christ, giving sound testimony about him.  When we look at the church in Acts, there are certainly acts of mercy and kindness, but the emphasis always fall on the verbal heralding of the good news of Christ.  Going through the book, you can’t help but notice the numerous sermons and speeches.  In fact, sermons and speeches make up 20 to 30 percent of the book.  The verbal proclamation of the church is front and center.  It seems that the apostles and other early Christians understood very well what it was that Jesus Christ had commissioned them to do.

Now there are many other passages (both from the Old and New Testament) we could look at, but I have to move along.  Given what we’ve surveyed, however, we can reach some conclusions.  One thing we cannot escape is the command to preach in an official way, a way that can only be connected with a special office.  There is another aspect as well and it is not directly connected to a special office and that is the notion of witnessing.  Both preaching and witnessing are inextricably tied to words – they are verbal forms of communication.  The Lord was sending out the apostles to speak.  The content of their speaking is captured with the word “evangel” – good news.  All of the Great Commission passages either speak of or imply a going out.  We also noted an emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit.  Finally, the ones who are targeted by this command are identified as all the nations or something similar.  And so we come to the definition mentioned a few moments ago:

Mission is the official sending of the church to go and make disciples by preaching and witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ in all nations through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To be continued…